Lauren Crichton, Senior Strategist at AKQA, investigates how transformational thinking can help us envisage and create a future we want to be part of.

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Lauren Crichton, Senior Strategist at AKQA, investigates how transformational thinking can help us envisage and create a future we want to be part of.

In September last year, Clapham Common tube station underwent a temporary transformation: for two weeks 68 of its billboard posters were replaced by pictures of cats, and it had nothing to do with TFL. It was the work of the Citizens Advertising Takeover Service (aka C.A.T.S), and it was entirely crowdfunded.

C.A.T.S was created by a small team of individuals united by a desire to to use their creative skills for good. A group of people who looked into the future and realised that the world can’t afford to keep consuming at the rate at which it is today. But instead of turning around and telling people to buy less stuff, to switch off more lights, to ignore more advertising, it showed them an alternative scenario – of a world where citizens had the freedom to shape the communal space around them. And it was a world filled with joy and positivity: “you did something good in a world that needs it right now”, said one commenter. I know this because I co-produced C.A.T.S, and had the privilege of reading many such messages in the weeks that followed.

C.A.T.S is a rare example of a specific type of thinking in action – a type of thinking built upon two central tenets, ’panoptic’ and ‘foresight’. ‘Foresight’, because it takes the future as the starting point; ‘panoptic’, because it embraces and interrogates that future from all sides. Put the two together and you have a new kind of transformational thinking.

Taking the future as the starting point and working backwards isn’t well established practice. After all, the the old adage tells us that the “the future is impossible to predict”. This statement may be true, but it’s not exhaustive. The future may not be predictable, but it is possible to interpret, and thus prepare for. This is vital in a world where the rate of change is increasing exponentially.

Porter’s SWOT analysis may help a strategist assess the competitive landscape, but in an increasingly uncertain environment businesses can no longer assume that it is possible to base future decisions on what has come before. Nor can they afford to play the wait and see game and hope everything turns out alright. Kodak is the obvious example of what happens when businesses rely on this kind of approach.

Regularly exploring possibilities and imagining alternative scenarios aids decision making abilities whilst preparing for the unexpected. This is something that humans do instinctively (“what are the implications of moving abroad in three years’ time, marrying X individual etc.?”). But it’s also something that can be trained. Consider visualisation in sport. The benefits are well documented: it prepares the athlete for future action, using mental rehearsal to focus the mind towards a specific goal. Visualisation is powerful because it makes the end goal attainable, achievable; the athlete is mentally engaged in making their desire a reality. Panoptic foresight has the potential to work on that same premise. Place yourself into an undesirable future and you start to ask yourself what you’d need to do to avoid it. Imagine yourself in utopia, and find yourself asking what you would need to do to get there. This builds mental agility.

Foresight may be a natural human attribute, but to leave it isolated to individuals in moments of introspection would be a missed opportunity. As we saw with C.A.T.S, the real power of foresight lies in collective activity. For larger organisations, techniques like scenario development are effective ways of structuring and guiding the group thinking process. Scenario development teams should be comprised of individuals representing a broad range of functions, divisions and, crucially, cultural backgrounds. This is where the concept of ‘panoptic’ comes back in. After all, the kinds of futures imagined depend heavily on the individuals doing the imagining. Exclude certain types of people from the imagining and you may end up excluding them from the futures imagined.

Foresight-led techniques like scenario development are at their most successful when simultaneously empowering and challenging participants. I recently ran a series of workshops to try and identify the consumer loyalty proposition of the future for an automotive client. We put our stake in the ground at 2030, and constructed four scenarios across two axes: the state of the global economy (x) and the state of technological advancement (y). Imagining a world in which people had not only embraced the circular economy, but had access to the technology to support it was exciting to the point of being overwhelming. What did cars look like in this world? Did humans even drive them anymore? Did email still exist? Who owns all the data? These kinds of queries give rise to interesting and complex implications for the industry or brand in question. We saw a world in which fewer people were owning cars, but more had unprecedented access to mobility – particularly in cities. The consequences for consumer loyalty in this context are significant: a consumer’s decision to travel with a chosen brand or mode of transport can now be made on a trip-by-trip, minute-by-minute basis. Automotive companies are used to having years to win back their consumers.

When looking into the future, it is tempting to shy away from the emerging challenges that present themselves – especially when sat before a client. Our industry is all about ideas and opportunity, after all. The beauty of a technique like scenario development is that there are almost always less desirable futures to explore.

Porter’s SWOT analysis may help a strategist assess the competitive landscape, but in an increasingly uncertain environment businesses can no longer assume that it is possible to base future decisions on what has come before

The degree of plausibility notwithstanding, this creates an important balance. Take our 2030 example. On the other end of the spectrum is a highly materially-oriented linear economy combined with a high-level of technological advancement. Under this scenario, the likelihood of us reaching the well-cited 47%-of jobs-lost-to-automation figure is considerably high. Great for corporate productivity levels; less so for working and middle class individuals. You don’t need a degree in politics and economics to work out that this is a more plausible future scenario to the one previously discussed, at least in the West – judging by current global political trends.

If the path towards automation is set to be well-trodden, then why was it so notably absent from the 2016 US presidential election? Why does the UK government continue to base intelligence on rote learning rather than creative thinking (our greatest asset vis-à-vis the machines)? Answer: endemic short- termism. There is little incentive to set a long-term reform programme in motion when a new government may sweep in to power four years later and abolish it in an instant. Under this environment, tactics that appease the electorate in the interim will always prevail. The point here isn’t about electoral reform; it’s about the damaging consequences of defaulting to tactics under willful ignorance about the future, be it on a political or business level.

Not all countries are burying their heads in the sand. In January 2017, Finland announced a two-year nationwide pilot scheme of universal basic income – a form of social security widely discussed in the context of rising automation. A year prior, it signalled the arrival of ‘phenomenon-based’ teaching to encourage interdisciplinary, collaborative and playful learning. This is in a bid to develop children’s creative thinking skills so that they are equipped for a future in which many forms of low-skilled/routine-based work will be unavailable. Will these initiatives prove successful? Maybe. Maybe not. But at least action is being taken now to try and create a better tomorrow.

Because a better tomorrow, that’s what it all comes down to really. We will never have the power to eliminate the uncertainty of the future. But what is within our power is to envisage a future that we want to be a part of, and start thinking about what steps we can already take today to work towards it. Be it as individuals, as employees, as citizens. The world has learnt much from what has come before. There’s much it can learn from what’s ahead too.

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LAuren Crichton

When not taking over train stations in her spare time, Lauren is busy helping large organisations overcome strategic challenges. She does this at AKQA, a global ideas and innovation company. After 18 months of working between the UK and Sweden, Lauren permanently relocated to Gothenburg in May 2017 to become the Senior Strategist at AKQA Sweden